Not since “Northern Exposure,” or perhaps even “Twin Peaks,” has there been a show as self-consciously quirky as “Maximum Bob,” which isn’t so much a piece of entertainment as a vivid hallucination. A dramatic comedy inspired by an Elmore Leonard bestseller (isn’t everything?), this hour has “cult hit” written all over it. Rational people will no doubt find it too offbeat, but the sickest amongst us will believe they have found their holy grail.
This is Barry Sonnenfeld’s third crack at Leonard, after the theatricals “Get Shorty” (which he helmed) and the under-appreciated “Out of Sight” (which he exec produced). This time, he’s exec producing (with Barry Josephson and scripter Alex Gansa) and helming the twisted gem of a pilot. Sonnenfeld is clearly ready for primetime. Whether primetime is ready for him, and his warped take on reality, proves a more puzzling question.
To be sure, Beau Bridges gives the comic performance of his life as Judge “Maximum” Bob Gibbs. He abuses power like the rest of us chew gum, ruling over his small Florida town of Deep Water like his personal fiefdom. His courtroom style is a tad unorthodox. He tends to sidle up to defendants and then when he gains their trust he smacks them with an unfairly harsh sentence — like, say, the electric chair for an underage drinkers first offense.
The blustery, flamboyant, chauvinistic judge (he’s lecherous, too) is married to Leanne (Kiersten Warren), who originally caught Gibbs’ eye when she was cast as a mermaid in the show at the local aquarium and demonstrated a special way of eating a banana underwater.
But since having a near-death experience with a wayward crocodile, Leanne works as a psychic who happens to be inhabited by the spirit of Wanda Grace, a 12-year-old Southern slave girl from the 1800s. Leanne, clearly not operating on all burners, hops between centuries with the dexterity of a trapeze artist.
But wait, there’s more. Judge Gibbs hits on Kathy Baker (Liz Vassey), a spunky public defender whose parolee client just got sent up the river for quaffing a beer. The judge, meanwhile, sends an alligator after Leanne to scare her into a divorce, since having a nut case for a significant other tends to dampen one’s ambitions of higher office. And then there’s Sheriff Gary (Sam Robards), an honest, compassionate sort who has taken up ballroom dancing to compensate for the loss of his late wife. Or something like that.
Gansa’s opening script is loaded with the kind of breezy outlandishness that makes for an entertaining ride in tandem with Sonnenfeld’s off-kilter camera angles. However, a second “Maximum Bob” seg supplied for review (and slated to air Aug. 18) loses much of the eccentric magic despite the enhanced role of a couple of portly, horn-rimmed, Southern-fried yahoos named Bogart Crowe (Paul Vogt) and Dirk Crowe (Peter Allen Vogt). You know things have traveled just a bit too over the top when a dance instructor begins plotting an overthrow of the Castro government to take control of Cuba.
But despite the inconsistency, you’ve just got to love a show that features an unseen character who goes around stealing late-model cars and blowing them up to protest their impact on the environment. “Maximum Bob” is like a consciousness-expanding narcotic transferred to film stock. If it’s sometimes too taken with its own sense of wacky, it surely deserves kudos for putting out the effort at all. And make no mistake: A new Beau Bridges is born.
Tech credits are top-notch.